It is coming to the end of the year and I noticed that I had read 10 running-related books this year. So here are short reviews of them all, taken from my Good Reads website. It is NOT my top ten running books published in 2018, just some thoughts on those I have read this year. In fact only four are from 2018. There is always catching up to do!
The figures after the author are the grade (1-5) given by me, and the year of publication.
I hope it might inspire some readers to pick up something ‘new’ to read.
Armistice Runner, by Tom Palmer (5, 2018)
This was something of a surprise. I am a sucker for running books anyway, and this was a delight. Although ostensibly written for the younger reader, the themes were very adult. It caught my emotions as the story unfolded, both the war detail and that of the gran’s Alzheimer’s. Subsequently found that the author is doing a lot for literacy in schools, which is brilliant.
The Mountains Are Calling, by Jonny Muir (5, 2018)
The first point to make about Jonny Muir’s book is the clarity and quality of his writing. The book’s subject is ‘running in the high places of Scotland’ which gives him a huge scope, range and landscape to cover. It is significant that he lives in this environment, and runs in it, for pleasure and competition. But it is the people that he meets and their stories that give such a great counterpoint to his own experiences that fascinated me most. Muir considers the origins of running in the hills, the beauty of it, and also the recent commercialisation of the sport (which definitely grates with him and some with whom he speaks). Running through the narrative, but not dominating it, is the Charlie Ramsay Round, which he seems fated to attempt – and finally does. The storyline does jump about a bit, and visits Scottish mountains some readers may not know so well, but his writing is so crisp and engaging that it draws you on and into what may be the unknown. His chapter titles are well chosen and three will suffice to give both a feel for the subject (Mountain Madness) and yet Muir’s feeling for hill running (Beautiful Madness; and Epiphany). Read and be inspired.
North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, by Scott Jurek (4, 2018)
I warmed to Jurek as I read this. He certainly put himself into a deep place in his AT endeavours. He describes the journey well and I liked his discursive writing but found the sections where his partner Jenny’s gives her thoughts rather less satisfactory. Looking back thought, it is a fascinating insight into the challenge that something like chasing a 50-mile a day FKT on the Appalachian Trail entails.
A Life Without Limits, by Chrissie Wellington (4, 2012)
This is a well written biography of a great athlete containing a nice balance between her personal and her sporting challenges and achievements. I particularly liked the frankness of the ‘issues’ that are talked of – pooing and relationships, etc. The constant reference back to the coach with a past and his influence are an intriguing narrative running throughout the book.
The Pants of Perspective, by Anna McNuff (4, 2017)
A very enjoyable read, easy, informative, and sometimes funny. In travel books like this I always like to see at least a simple map of the route taken, but to no avail.
The best part, as perhaps it should be, are the people met on the way. Overall, a very enjoyable book.
This Mum Runs, by Jo Pavey (3, 2016)
I chose this book as a light read after a major operation. It was fascinating to hear about Jo’s early success, injury years, and slightly left-field fightback. She is certainly a role model for athletes seeking a long career, and describes her achievements in a modest and appealing way.
Twin Tracks: The Autobiography, by Roger Bannister (3, 2014)
I know it is the twin tracks of his life, but the first half on his running was very good but the second was rather tedious, as it wound its way through his medical and sports administration work. A good book about an amazing athlete, who was also an outstanding and very special human being.
Pre: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine, by Tom Jordan (3, 1977)
A great insight into a great runner. He comes across as tough and hard working, with a bloody mindedness that rubbed some up the wrong way. To beat him you had to run hard and fast, none of this sprint out at the end stuff. Sadly he died very young in a car crash. Although a good read, I still could have done with more of the man and less of the races.
Running the Red Line, by Julie Carter (3, 2018)
Mixed feelings on this one. The author is a doctor/psychologist and tries to analyse herself and also explore the physiology and psychology that comes into play when we push ourselves (the ‘red zone’). It had some interesting stuff on resilience and motivation.
Run or Die, by Kilian Jornet (2, 2011)
Unquestionably an amazing athlete and something of a free-spirit, Jornet certainly seems passionate about his sport and the environment it takes place in. The book is part diary, part personal philosophy, with just a little on technique and nutrition. It is written like a blog which makes it quite disjointed. An entertaining read, despite his high-blown language at times, which may have lost something in the translation.
For a further list of 20 books that I feel show something of the range and depth of the running book genre, see my earlier blog:
Good reads : running books.
And if you are looking for presents to give, look no further than:
Books: ideal Christmas pressies!
Inspired by Jonny Muir’s recent blog post I looked back over the good running books I have read in recent years. The following 20 books are ones that I feel show something of the range and depth of the running book genre. For the research for my 3 fell running books I read everything I could find on off-road, fell and mountain running. These books are excluded from this list, and are actually very well covered in Jonny’s post*. I tried to organise the books in categories, but they are VERY loosely defined, and I ended up forcing 4 books into each category, just to make a layout that worked. I hope you might be led to some books that you might have missed. Enjoy, and feel free to suggest others, via comments on this blog, or via social media.
* What to read when you read about hill running
Endurance – Zatopek had won the 5000m, 10000m and marathon at the 1952 Olympics. This book is well researched, not only describing his upbringing and athletic feats but also gives a great feel for the man himself, his eccentricities and his hard training ethic. His life after his running career is only briefly described which does not fully illustrate the price he paid for the stance he took in 1968, which was shaped by the oppressive hand of communism.
Running for their lives – An extraordinary story, predominantly about prejudice, with a sort of sad tone rather than being particularly uplifting. The runners’ double life stories are well intertwined by the author. An example of a book about ‘unknowns’ that reads better than many better known athlete biographies.
The Perfect Mile – The dramatic race to be the first man to run a sub-4 minute mile which had been thought unreachable. A well-researched book, reconstructing conversations and documenting the feelings and emotions of those involved. The protagonists are Bannister of the UK, Landy of Australia, and Santee of the US. The perfect mile was not Bannister’s run that first broke the barrier in 1954, but the later showdown between Bannister and Landy – which is covered in great detail.
Today we die a little – Zatopek was inspirational athlete and a complex and interesting person. Askwith tells his story well, and always engages the reader. He captures why Zatopek was one of the greatest of all time, but doesn’t try to cover up his flaws. Difficult to choose between this and ‘Endurance’.
BORN IN THE USA
Duel in the sun – You may know the basic story of this New York marathon epic, but do you know the life stories of the two protagonists. The format is to tell the story of the race inter-weaved with chapters about the backgrounds and post-race traumas of Salazar and Beardsley. Interesting to see the parallels and subsequent (different) demises they suffered.
Iron War – A story of human struggle, elite athletic prowess, suffering, and individual achievement, it is a great triathlon book. It is the personal stories of Dave Scott and Mark Allen who were greats of the sport. Massive respect to these elite athletes on the one hand for their discipline and courage, but pity for them for their inability to manage their actions and emotions better. There is also the post-publication defamation hooha, which is partly down to the author’s hard-hitting insights.
Bowerman and the men of Oregon – Detailed story of both the man and the times. He did so much more than coach. Kenny Moore tells it all well, from a good position of journalist and one-time trainer with Bowerman. He brings out the quirks in the man’s character well. The chapter on his fight against a ‘cult’ settlement was a bit of a surprise. The end very emotional – I had gotten to like this probably hard to like guy by then.
Born to run – OK, it is not even about running, but is possibly the best, and best written, book on the music world. It is an example of the artist’s own words being the best source. Springsteen once claimed that his parents wanted him to be a writer not a musician, and despite the quirky style he justifies that thought.
SCIENCE (of training/coaching)
Bounce – Fantastic bringing together of research into succeeding as athlete (and in business). Interspersed with incidents from Syed’s career that illustrate the points being made. Tries to analyse why Africans dominate distance running.
Two hours – A kind of homage to the art of marathon running. More than the sub-2 hr quest, it is a fascinating insight into one man (Geoffrey Mutai) and his life and training. Visiting the training camp in Kenya’s Rift Valley and following him at Berlin, New York and London, Caesar also interviews many of the world’s top runners, experts and sports scientists. He also gives wonderful insights into the minds and lives of top athletes.
How to support a champion – A great insight into sports science, and what it can bring to sporting performance. He also writes of his work with some world class performers, admitting that he was learning from them as much as vice versa. As an athletics coach this helped me focus on areas of potential improvement by identifying some of the important things an athlete (and coach) needs to work on to perform to their very best.
Black box thinking – You could sum up Syed’s thesis as: learn from your mistakes. He uses a wide range of examples but also takes time to probe why we often don’t learn. The examples range across transport, sport, and health care, amongst others. He is perhaps weakest in offering any practical changes required to embrace failure, but he does clearly illustrate the need to make such changes.
TRAINING (sort of)
From last to first – This is way more than a biography. It has some good points to make about doing things ‘your way’, not always the way ‘the book’ tells you. It is also surprisingly good on altitude, lactate, psychology and stuff of a more academic nature. Has more practical information to offer than many a coaching book.
Swim, bike, run – This is a (ghost-written) joint autobiography of the Brownlees. They are quite open about each other and their relationship, which I liked. Shame their achievements in, and love of, fell running was hardly mentioned (I AM biased mind). Their training tips are instructive, giving a good picture of what it takes to be (arguably) the top two triathletes in the world.
Running Scared – This was originally published in 1997, but had resonance when the Salazar investigation and other news came out and still makes depressing reading. Athletics is arguably Britain’s most successful sport, and Mackay investigates the cost of that success. He charts the trials and tribulations of the Olympic Games’ principal sport and reveals some pretty awful drug, money and corruption issues, even before the turn of the millennium.
Austerity Olympics – The whole story about the ’48 Olympics was fascinating in comparison to the 2012 version. It is the result of some pretty serious research. A good read, which in a strange way pointed up the fact that some of the main players from this era have never had THEIR full story told – Fanny Blankers-Koen for example.
RUNNING WITH THE ………
Running with the Kenyans – A fantastic insight into the culture of running in what many consider the leading distance running country in the world now. Finn takes his family to live there and he tries to run with the locals and work out their ‘secret’ – which there isn’t of course. The inter-weaving of family life, his attempt to train a team of contenders and the insights into the greats makes a marvellous mix.
Running with the Buffaloes – An unbelievably compelling read, not surprising considering the distance athlete (and coach) in me. It takes a while to get used to the Americanisms, I even had to look some up. Some scenes and quotes now have regular use among athletic clubmates who are ‘in’ on the book. A good combination of story and ‘coaching’ which certainly made me think about how I have gone about things.
Born to run – Argues that modern trainers cause injuries and we should all return to barefoot running, or as near as reasonably possible. Written in what might be called a ‘gonzo’ style, it is good at telling of the tale of the big race at the core of the story, the characters within the story, and his search for the legendary Caballa Blanco, a Tarahumara Indian.
Way of the runner – Finn writes about the Japanese lifestyle and also the traditional Ekiden relay race. Long-distance running is big business in Japan and they have plenty of young/university athletes, but can’t seem to translate it to the world stage and take on the Ethiopians and Kenyans at the marathon. Finn immerses himself in the culture to try to find the answer.
… and of course there are my three books, all from Sandstone Press.
It’s a hill, get over it – A detailed history of the sport of fell running. It also tells the stories of some of the great exponents of the sport through the ages. Many of them achieved greatness whilst still working full time in traditional jobs, a million miles away from the professionalism of other branches of athletics nowadays.
The Round – A history of the Bob Graham Round, but also an exploration of the what, why and how of this classic fell endurance challenge. After covering the genesis of the BGR in detail, it documents its development from a more-or-less idle challenge to its present status as a rite of passage for endurance runners.
Running Hard – For one brilliant season in 1983 the sport of fell running was dominated by the two huge talents of John Wild and Kenny Stuart. Wild was an incomer to the sport from road running and track. Stuart was born to the fells, but an outcast because of his move from amateur to professional and back again. Together they destroyed the record book, only determining who was top by a few seconds in the last race of the season. Running Hard is the story of that season, and an inside, intimate look at the two men.
A magazine editor* approached me the other day, asking if I would write a piece (1000 words-ish, he said) on marathon training. ‘Something that people who are new to marathon training can benefit from reading. It could be about your experiences as a marathon runner or coach, or both’, he said, generously. I have taken that brief fairly liberally.
I have been coaching for 30 years now. I took my first Assistant Club Coach course in May 1986, when I was still a bit of an athlete. In the ensuing three decades I have worked with innumerable people on their marathon training. This has ranged from being a sounding board for the athlete’s own ideas, through mentoring and guiding more specific training, right through to ‘setting schedules’ in a very small number of instances. I freely admit that I may well have screwed up with some people (ignorance, experimentation), but would be disappointed if there weren’t a couple of people who, if asked, didn’t say,
actually Steve’s coaching and advice significantly helped me achieve what I did at the marathon.
Looking back in my notes from that first coaching course, I see that by page 5 we were in to double periodisation, but we are not going there in this piece. It will just be my take on some of the basics of getting to the start line of a marathon un-injured and fit as is possible, bearing in mind individual parameters. I will also highlight specific mistakes I may have made in my own marathon training over the years.
Already as I write this I am wondering why I said yes to the editor. I originally thought I would maybe go with the basic principles of marathon training, but there is really no such thing. It does SO depend on where you are starting from (how much training history you have) and how far you want to go (what level of performance are you hoping for).
OK, lets start with, how long do you need to build up to a marathon?
The pat answer is several years, which is hardly helpful for anyone planning on running a marathon in Spring 2017. That is simply because it takes a considerable amount of time to accustomise your body to the mileage that is required over an extended period of time to give you the background to train HARD for a good marathon.
So, any shortcuts then, Steve?
Not really. The easiest mistake to make is trying to run much higher mileages than you normally run in too short a time. Therefore, the first rule of thumb is to build up the total mileage you run AND the length of the longest runs at a very gradual rate. If you have a reasonable base fitness (most people in a running club should have), then you can consider something like an 18 week build-up, counting back from the marathon date. A guideline is to have no more than a 10% increase per week. So, if you are currently running 25 miles per week, and your longest run is say 6 miles in week 0, then the most you want to do in week 1 (of the 18) is probably 27 miles total with a long run of 7 miles.
Already I am making some assumptions that will not hold true for all potential marathoners. You might be thinking,
OK what mileage do I need to aim for, and what longest run do I need to do?
Again, no one answer. Just getting around a marathon can be achieved off quite low mileages, and a lot of willpower.
If you do the 10% per week maths from 25 miles a week through to 18 weeks you would be doing 100+ miles by the end. There are several reasons why this should not be the case. Firstly, you need to taper down in the last couple of weeks. This means doing less training and having more recovery. Secondly, it is pretty well established that continuously increasing the load you put yourself under is a recipe for injury. Your mileage has to be handled carefully.
One way is to follow several weeks of increased mileage with a low mileage recovery week. I like to think of it as a sawtooth pattern – the long side of the tooth being increasing weeks, with the short (down) side of the tooth as the recovery. If this is envisaged as a sloping saw then the trend is upwards, with recovery (low mileage weeks) every now and again, followed by further build-up to a new level, starting each increase from a higher level.
Ok, I’m doing more miles, but what longest run do I need to do?
Again, sorry but no one answer. I don’t recommend running 26.2 miles in training. A simple rule might be to make the longest run equivalent to the time you expect to be on your feet in the marathon. As you will be running slower than the race in training this might be something around 22-23 miles. This might seem daunting, especially if you are expecting to run something in the 3-30 to 4 hour timeframe. But you do need to let your body know what it is in for. So time on your feet is important. If you are a ‘novice’ marathoner that long run might be a one-off. But for faster/experienced marathoners I always try to plan in at least six 20+ mile training runs.
One of those 20 milers might be a race, which I recommend being run at ‘potential marathon’ pace – ie not as fast as you can run 20 miles (in theory). Depending on your instincts I like to see marathoners doing a couple of other longer races too, maybe a half marathon and a 10 miler. But remember every race is potentially taking you away from training – a small taper and the need to recover needing to be accounted for. So the races must have a point – pace judgement, confidence, variation in training even.
In some ways those two points above can be considered the most crucial to get right. I could write a whole lot more, but think I will just mention some things you should and shouldn’t do.
Firstly, when planning your running week make sure you alternate hard days with easy days – you can’t train full tilt every day. It is definitely worth seeking regular training partners. The long runs will be hard, and will go so much better in company. Arranging to run with someone will make it happen – even on a cold and wet winter’s day, you won’t want to let that friend down. Also don’t shy away from hills in training. Although you may well want as flat a marathon as possible, the discipline of training ever hills will be good for your muscle development. It is also very important to get your food (and drink) intact right, and to ensure you get enough sleep. When you are in maximum marathon training it might be the one time in life you can eat to your hearts content!
Feel an injury issue bubbling under? Don’t try to run through it. Have a break now and get back soon, rather than causing more damage. If possible get an expert to look at the issue (there is usually one in most clubs). In fact, why not have what is called a ‘maintenance massage’ BEFORE you get injured. One way of getting injured is to run in worn trainers. So, make sure you have several trainers that you can alternate and that are all giving you good support.
Should I be just concentrating on long runs?
Well you all do some speed work at some point in the week don’t you? Well then, keep that going. If you don’t, you risk becoming a long-slow runner. Similarly with core work. Don’t stop doing it. And if you don’t do it, then start now. Having said all that, I do recommend trying to fit in a second ‘long’ run in mid-week. Once you get up to 15+ miles for the long run this can be in the 10 miles range, complementing the long run, and nicely giving you a good proportion of your mileage in just two sessions.
What, you say, does this all mean for me?
Let’s take four hypothetical marathoners and I will give a few thoughts on what training path they might take to get a result that reflects their potential, and not suffer like this guy did – Jim Peters, who fell just 150m from the finish line of the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver (and never fully recovered from the experience).
First time marathoner: very difficult to settle on a plan. It SO depends how much training you normally do. The important thing is to spend a good period of time building-up, probably over more than my suggested 18 weeks. Ensure you gradually build both the intensity and the volume of the training. In some ways it is a ‘finding out’ situation. You are unlikely to do your eventual PB in your first marathon. Use the event to see what level of training you can reach – without breaking down physically or it disrupting your domestic life too dramatically. Keep a diary so you have a record of what you have done and can adjust another time, perhaps with a coach or advisor to give an impartial view.
Improving, yet still a novice at the event: by natural progression most people will improve on their second or third marathon just by being fitter, better prepared and having a better understanding how to run the distance (which is quite an art in itself). This is the time that increasing the mileage is probably appropriate. You may well surprise yourself how much training you can do in any given period of time. Experiment with training twice a day now and again. Monitor the effect, is it actually counter-productive? Are you doing any/enough speed work? What is this track training all about – try it. You now need to know your current capability well enough to know what pace to set yourself for the marathon. Make sure you fit in a 20 mile race as a pointer for this. Run it at your expected marathon pace. Two reasons: feel what the pace is going to be like, and get feedback on how it has gone. Arrange it to be a good few weeks before the marathon. Then you have time to build in further training, and a good result is taken onwards to the race.
Have done a respectable time, but now want to go for the big one: Look back at your previous training. Is the balance right? Are you turning into a mileage monkey? As I found to my cost, the adding of more miles doesn’t always equate to better race times. Can you train smarter? It might be a good idea to cut down on mileage and increase the quality. Can you perform better if you give your body more recovery time? Organising regular preventative massage is worth considering. Don’t wait till you are feeling tight all of a sudden. One way of having both the ability and confidence to run a faster marathon is to train to improve your intermediate times. Reducing your half marathon PB might be a step towards bringing the marathon time down. Also aim to get your long rep times down in your speed sessions.
May be at or near your peak: now, you may still be able to set a better mark, but in order to do so many things have GOT to come together. You are looking for minute improvements in your preparation and performance. Analyse what you have done in the past and see how you can train even smarter. Get a coach/advisor to help you filter the good/bad practice. Possibly start the build-up earlier or from a higher point than you might have in the past. You should now know what optimum training level will keep you the right side of that thin line – between fitness and injury. Monitor your body. Give yourself good recovery, and your legs a regular massage. Work on the psychological aspect of preparation, and in particular of your approach to the actual event. Do you associate or dissociate in races? Do you need to try to improve this aspect of your preparation?
There are loads of books out there that might help you tweak your physical and mental preparation. Looking along my book shelves, I see several that helped me back in the day. “Winning without drugs” by David Hemery and Guy Ogden, “Challenge of the Marathon” by Cliff Temple, and “Training for peak performance” by Wilf Paish, are three in particular that I remember digging into a lot. All classics, but all probably out of print now.
There is so much more I could say, but let’s close with some very quick thoughts on my own marathon efforts. I improved from 3-05 in the very first London marathon in 1981 [photo left], through three years of higher mileage which allowed me to improve to 2-49, 2-46 and 2-43, before peaking in 1985 with 2-34-53.
Looking back through my diaries, and doing a few sums, made me realise three things. Firstly, that I never did particularly high mileage in my marathon build-ups (an average of 55 miles/week in 18 weeks build to the 1985 PB).
Secondly, that I now seem to be advocating much higher mileages than I ever did myself for people that I advise on their marathon training. And thirdly, that there are lessons to be learned from what I did to try to take my time down even further than the 1985 result, which was tantalisingly less than 2 minutes from the Club Record at the time. In simple terms I tried to do more miles, and hard ones at that, and became injured, meaning I didn’t start in 1986, and had a poor result in 1987, at which point I moved to other events, particularly fell running (which this blog is more often about).
* This material (in slightly different form) first appeared in the Barnet and District AC club magazine in Dec 2016, and is reproduced with permission.
Only two weeks to go to the book’s launch now, and the excitement (well mine anyway!) is building, as I wait for my copies to arrive. Sandstone Press have today put out a press release which contains these fine words:
“If there was a prize for ‘Most Imaginative and Amusing Title’ this month’s beautiful release, titled as above, would probably take it. Steve Chilton, a dedicated fell runner of many years standing (if standing is the right word) has produced the first and definitive history of his sport. He has delivered a beautiful text, to match his great concept, and added to it a brilliant photo section, tables, records, and interviews with the great runners of past and present …….. [It is] one of the most impressive of all our titles, a ‘must have’ for all fell runners, all runners generally, and all lovers of the Great Outdoors from Ben Nevis to the Lakes and beyond.”
It is possible to pre-order from Amazon, and I understand from the publisher that a good number of copies have been ordered already. Co-incidentally or related I am not too sure, but they have recently reduced the priced even further. Whether this is a good of bad thing for me as an author is a moot point.